Выбрать главу

"I don't know, Bill."

"I don't know, either."

"It sounds like mental illness to me."

He laughed again. She took pictures of him laughing until the roll was finished. Then she loaded the camera and moved him away from the quartz lamp and started shooting again, using window light now.

"Incidentally. I bring a message from Charles Everson."

Bill hitched up his pants. He seemed to look past her, frisking himself for signs of cigarettes.

"I ran into him at a publishing dinner somewhere. He asked how my work was going. I told him I'd probably be seeing you."

"No reason you shouldn't mention it."

"I hope it's all right."

"The pictures will be out one day."

"Actually the only message I bring is that Charles wants to talk to you. He wouldn't tell me what it's all about. I told him to write you a letter. He said you don't read your mail."

"Scott reads my mail."

"He said that what he had to tell you couldn't be seen or heard by anyone else. Far too delicate. He also said he used to be your editor and good, good friend. And he said it was distressing not to be able to get in touch with you directly."

Bill looked for matches now, clearing papers off the desktop.

"How's old Charlie then?"

"The same. Soft, pink and happy."

"Always new writers, you see. They sit in their corner offices and never have to worry about surviving the failed books because there's always a new one coming along, a hot new excitement.

They live, we die. A perfectly balanced state."

"He told me you'd say something like that."

"And you waited to tell me about him. Didn't want to spring it on me prematurely."

"I wanted my pictures first. I didn't know how you'd react to news from out there."

He struck the match and then forgot it.

"Do you know what they like to do best? Run those black-border ads for dead writers. It makes them feel they're part of an august tradition."

"He simply wants you to call him. He says it's a matter of some importance."

He swiveled his head until the cigarette at the corner of his mouth came into contact with the flame.

"The more books they publish, the weaker we become. The secret force that drives the industry is the compulsion to make writers harmless."

"You like being a little bit fanatical. I know the feeling, believe me. But what is more harmless than the pure game of making up? You want to do baseball in your room. Maybe it's just a metaphor, an innocence, but isn't this what makes your books popular? You call it a lost game that you've been trying to recover as a writer. Maybe it's not so lost. What you say you're writing toward, isn't this what people see in your work?"

"I only know what I see. Or what I don't see."

"Tell me what that means."

He dropped the match in an ashtray on the desk.

"Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. On one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it's the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language. I've always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence. The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There's a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer's will to live. The deeper I become entangled in the process of getting a sentence right in its syllables and rhythms, the more I learn about myself. I've worked the sentences of this book long and hard but not long and hard enough because I no longer see myself in the language. The running picture is gone, the code of being that pushed me on and made me trust the world. This book and these years have worn me down. I've forgotten what it means to write. Forgotten my own first rule. Keep it simple, Bill. I've lacked courage and perseverance. Exhausted. Sick of struggling. I've let good enough be good enough. This is someone else's book. It feels all forced and wrong. I've tricked myself into going on, into believing. Can you understand how that can happen? I'm sitting on a book that's dead."

"Does Scott know you feel this way?"

"Scott. Scott's way ahead of me. Scott doesn't want me to publish."

"But this is completely crazy."

"No, it's not. There's something to be said."

"When will you finish?"

"Finish. I'm finished. The book's been done for two years. But I rewrite pages and then revise in detail. I write to survive now, to keep my heart beating."

"Show someone else."

"Scott is smart and totally honest."

"He's only one opinion."

"Any judgment based strictly on merit is going to sound like his. And how it hurts when you know the verdict is true. And how you try to evade it, twist it, disfigure it. And word could get out. And once that happens."

"You finish, you publish and you take what comes."

"I will publish."

"It's simple, Bill."

"It's just a question of making up my mind and going ahead and doing it."

"And you'll stop redoing pages. The book is finished. I don't want to make a fetish of things are simple. But it's done, so you stop."

She watched him surrender his crisp gaze to a softening, a bright-eyed fear that seemed to tunnel out of childhood. It had the starkness of a last prayer. She worked to get at it. His face was drained and slack, coming into flatness, into black and white, cracked lips and flaring brows, age lines that hinge the chin, old bafflements and regrets. She moved in closer and refocused, she shot and shot, and he stood there looking into the lens, soft eyes shining.

Scott told her a story at lunch about his days of wandering, ten years ago, sick and broke in Athens and trying to cadge yankee dollars from tourists so he could get on one of those amphetamine buses that take you to the Himalayas in about a hundred hours of nonstop terror, through wars and mountain passes, but he was getting nowhere. He walked into the main square and saw some people gathered on the steps of a nice-looking old hotel with a European name he couldn't recall. "Grande Bretagne."

Right. There was a film crew and some men who looked like government officials and fifty or sixty people just passing by and Scott went over there and saw a man on the top step who wore a khaki field jacket and checkered headscarf, a short guy with a scratchy beard, and it was Yasir Arafat and he was waving at the people on the sidewalk. When a hotel guest came out the door, Arafat smiled and nodded and people in the crowd smiled in response. Then Arafat said something to an official and the man laughed and everyone on the sidewalk smiled some more. Scott realized he was smiling broadly. He could feel the smile stretching across his face and he looked at the people around him and they looked back smiling and it was clearly agreed they all felt good together. And Arafat smiled again, talking to officials, overges-turing for the camera, pointing toward the entrance and then moving that way. Everyone applauded now. Someone shook Arafat's hand and there was more applause. He lets a stranger shake his hand. Scott smiled and applauded, he saw the men on the steps applaud. When Arafat went inside, the people on the sidewalk smiled and clapped one last time. They wanted to make him happy.

"Did you get to the Himalayas?"

"I got to Minneapolis. I went back to school for a year but then I dropped out again and fell into another spiral of drugs and nonbeing. There was nothing very special about it, even to me. I was a salesperson for a while in a heavily carpeted shoestore. Somebody gave me Bill's first novel to read and I said, Whoa what's this? That book was about me somehow. I had to read slowly to keep from jumping out of my skin. I saw myself. It was my book. Something about the way I think and feel. He caught the back-and-forthness. The way things fit almost anywhere and nothing gets completely forgotten."